During his time in the White House, President Joe Biden has made a number of decisions that have drawn both praise and criticism. Among them has been his administration’s commitment to diverse hiring. Biden has made several historic appointments, and his choice of Karine Jean-Pierre as White House Press Secretary made waves in a number of communities. As the first Black LGBTQIA+ woman to serve in the position, Jean-Pierre is deeply aware she is opening doors. She takes her place proudly, citing other Black women associated with the administration—including Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black woman to take on that role, and Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman to sit on the United States Supreme Court.
Jean-Pierre says each appointment was approached with intention. “The President understood what it meant to have that type of representation,” she explains. “And not just on the court. We have Latino representation, AAPI representation, we have people from the LGBTQIA+ community , and all of that matters. It is historic. In almost every corner of the administration, you see that representation, and it’s purposeful.”
An immigrant born to Haitian parents, Jean-Pierre has wit, confidence and a powerful voice that reaches to every part of the world. While the role comes naturally to her, she never loses sight of the fact that when she speaks, Americans are watching a Black woman present information and field questions crucial to the operation of the most powerful country in the world. Her word is her bond, and everyone is listening.
When not addressing the nation, she keeps herself grounded with images in her office of the other history-making women walking alongside her. One print, of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, was given to her by Julissa Reynoso Pantaleón, the First Lady’s former chief of staff and the current U.S. Ambassador to Spain. She looks at the images throughout the day for inspiration. They’re also a reminder that she didn’t get where she is alone—and that she wants to help the women coming after her to make history, too.
Caroline Wanga: We’ve talked a lot about you wanting to do as much as you can in this role. If you were to tell people about your time in the role, in the form of a press briefing, what would you say?
Karine Jean-Pierre: Wow. That’s such a powerful question, and I hope I have a little bit longer in this role. If I were to do this in a press briefing, I’d say to folks who are out there that representation matters. I hope that me being at the podium really changes the perspective of young girls—and not just young girls, but also young boys of color, and people everywhere who have been told many times during their life, like I have, that they couldn’t do something, that they were not supposed to be where they dreamed of being.
This has been a journey for me. Never would I have ever thought at 5 years old, at 8, at 10, at 21, that I would be standing here at this podium speaking on behalf of the President of the United States—the most powerful person in the world, the leader of the free world—and not only speaking for him, but speaking to him and to the American people about what he wants to do to deliver on his promises, to deliver on his platform.
Wanga: It’s a mindset.
Jean-Pierre: You could be anywhere in your life. If you’re having a hard time and you’re thinking I’m not going to make it. This is too hard. I don’t know if I’m worthy, I hope by seeing me in this role throughout my tenure gives people hope, gives people inspiration. Understand, my journey was not easy. It was very difficult. Even now. I am the daughter of immigrants. My mom and my dad helped me throughout my career, and especially when I was young. They’re the reason that I’m able to do this every day. Whether it’s the Black community, Black women, whether it’s the immigrant community, whether it’s the LGBTQIA+ community, these are communities that lift me up every day, every time that I see them, every time I go out of the DMV area and have real conversations with people. These are just some of the communities that I represent.
Wanga: The voice speaking for the most powerful man in the world is a Black, queer, immigrant woman. You talked about how part of your strength in this role is because of the communities that surround you and these identities. When you say you’re being in this role is on purpose, that it’s intentional, what do you mean?
Jean-Pierre: Let me first talk about the ancestors and the people on whose shoulders I stand—who have given so much for many of us to now be in historic roles, not just this one. That matters, right? They are why we can succeed and break down barriers. There are many people who came before us who suffered, who bled, who died to make sure that we can be where we are in our lives, to break this glass ceiling and to do that work. Even before me, there was Judy Smith, who was the deputy press secretary, who—
Wanga: She was the inspiration for Scandal, ladies and gentlemen. That’s the real Olivia Pope.
Jean-Pierre: The real Olivia Pope. She was the first Black woman to stand behind this podium for a televised press briefing.
Wanga: My last question. You have talked a lot about the meaning of you being in this role: for you, for the communities that you’re part of, for the communities we all exist in, and what you are committed to giving of yourself. As you continue to sit in the seat of servant leadership that you have articulated so well, what do you want other people to do? What do you want them to say? How do you want them to be? How do you want them to exist as a part of extending what you are doing in this role?
Jean-Pierre: That’s another great question. I’ve actually thought about this many times, and I’ve given it different answers. I think the first thing is, I want people to understand that they need to be bold, be brave—and going after their passion is incredibly important. When I talk to young people, that’s what I always tell them. Then there’s another part of this that I think is very important, that I don’t think we do enough as communities—and that is to support each other, to lift each other up, and make sure that we are lifting everyone in that community and not leaving anybody behind.